A federal grant could double the number of Illinois farmers markets that accept electronic payments, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon announced Tuesday.
During a conference call, Simon said 41 Illinois farmers markets will each receive $1,200 from the Illinois Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Wireless Project. The money comes from a $4 million initiative by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) use at farmers markets.
The EBT program allows farmers markets to accept Link cards wirelessly for the first time (Link cards are an electronic version of food stamps), with credit and debit cards also being accepted. Because of the EBT project, Simon said 99 total farmers markets could be accepting wireless payments by the end of the year. According to numbers released by Simon, 49 Illinois farmers markets accepted Link cards in 2011, up from 15 in 2009.
Audrey Rowe, the USDA Food and Nutrition service administrator, said citizens’ health is at the center of the federal grant, (read more PI coverage on the grant here). She said the Obama Administration is committed to ensuring Americans have access to a healthy diet. According to Rowe, a Chicago native who said she benefitted from farmers markets as a child, the program will increase low-income families’ access to farmers markets.
Rowe said the EBT program is a good situation for Illinois residents and the farmers themselves. She said residents will now have easier access to fresh produce, and the farmers will have new consumers for their products.
Simon agreed, adding that the program will help bring wireless machines to farmers who run on a shoe-string budget and couldn’t otherwise afford them. “About three years ago, one in 20 farmers markets had access to the machines. After the grant, every third market will have access,” said Simon.
One of those farmers is Josh Dotson, whose family owns Dotson Farms in Beecher. Dotson Farms has been attending farmers markets since 1979 and sells produce at three SNAP-certified farmers markets in Chicago: Lincoln Square Farmers Market, Division Street Farmers Market and Pullman Farmers Market. Since he began accepting Link cards, Dotson has seen a 10 percent sales increase at the Pullman market, which is located in a low-income neighborhood surrounded by a food desert.
“The program will continue to help customers purchase fresh, local produce, and it will help farmers like myself see the customer growth that we need to survive,” said Dotson.
Around the country, farmers like Dotson could also benefit from the EBT program. Rowe said there are over 6,100 farmers markets nationwide, a 16 percent increase from 2009. More than 2,400 of them are able to accept SNAP benefits, which represents 11.7 million redemptions, according to Rowe. “Clearly, there is economic opportunity for farmers,” she said.
But Rowe noted access to farmers markets is about more than financial gains. The markets also provide nutrition education and outreach. According to Rowe, customers at farmers markets have the opportunity to watch cooking demonstrations on how to prepare healthy foods.
Rowe said the nationwide response to the EBT program has been tremendous, and the USDA is making requests for more grants in 2013 and 2014. “We’d like to see every farmers market have this technology and allow for every SNAP participant to have access,” said Rowe.
Chicago-area farmers’ markets that will receive the grant for wireless machines include George Washington Carver Farmers Market, Loyola Farmers Market and Portage Park Farmers Market.